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Latin Composition Tips

Latin composition is the only way that you will really be able to learn Latin: plus it's not as hard as you think! When you do Latin composition, you simply take Latin words and put them together in sentences in order to say something. That's a vital component of the language experience: understanding what others are saying in Latin, and being able to say something yourself! if all you do is translate Latin sentences into English, are you really learning Latin...? Not really. Here are some tips on how to do the composition assignments for this class.

Do not write your sentences in English first. Please do not turn this into an English-Latin translation exercise! If you think it is good to do English-Latin translation, I can give you extra sentences to translate -- but English-Latin translation is not a very productive language-learning exercise. Really. Try to think in Latin about what you want to say. At first, this means your sentences will probably only be two or three words long. Great! There is nothing wrong with that at all.

Please don't use the dictionary! There are only 2 good reasons to use the dictionary: to find out the conjugation of a verb / declension of a noun, or to remind yourself of a Latin word that you already know well. If you look up words in the English-Latin dictionary, and pick Latin words that you do not know, the odds are that you will use that Latin word incorrectly. Here's an example: if you look up the word "try" in the paperback Bantam Latin dictionary (a good dictionary!), you will find tempto-- but if you look up tempto, you will find that it means " to test, feel, probe." If you were looking for the English word "try" in the sense of "make an effort, attempt, want to do something", then you want the Latin word conor, which is defined as "try" but which does not show up in the English-Latin side of the dictionary at all. Use the words you know. Use the words from the readings. If you use words from the dictionary that are not familiar to you, extremely strange things will result. To prove this to yourself, take a visit to Babelfish.

Be careful with English present passive and past passive. In English, the participle is used both for the present passive -- "is painted" -- and for the past passive -- "was painted." But in Latin, the participle is used only for the past passive: pictus est. The Latin present passive is a synthetic form of the verb, without a participle: to say "is painted" in Latin you say pingitur.

Words less commonly used in Latin. There are a number of words and phrases that are less commonly used in Latin but which we use often in English. For example, we very often use the word "can" in English where Latin simply uses the verb: scribit = he writes, he can write. Latin is also more likely to omit possessive pronouns, letting this be determined by context: pecuniam cepi = I took the money, I took my money. Latin is also less likely to state that something "begins" to happen; the defective Latin verb coepi is used far less often than the English word "begin."

Cum: together with. Remember: when cum is used as a preposition in Latin it is equivalent to the English "together with." There are many different ways to translate the English "with" into Latin, and sometimes you can just use the ablative all by itself (eum gladio interfeci, I killed him with my sword).

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM